It is important that players develop their fundamental man to man defensive skills before trying to develop a zone defence.
Unless a player can contain his opponent by maintaining good stance and position it wont matter whether a man to man or zone defence is used and winning will be elusive.
When good defensive pressure is applied to the ball-handler it is more difficult for the offence to make effective passes, or penetrating drives to the basket. When there is strong pressure on the ball handler, defensive players can make decisions to retreat off their opponent and block driving or passing lanes, or alternatively over-play their opponent in an effort to make an interception, or force a violation.
A "passive" zone applies modest pressure on the ball and keeps all players in areas close to the basket, will often be effective against teams with poor shooting, while the an aggressive zone defence that includes strong pressure on the ball and double teaming will often be useful against teams that may not be well organised, or are too rigid with their offensive structure.
Coaches should consider as many options as possible when deciding the type of defence they prefer. The decision should always be consistent with the coach's philosophy on how he wants the game to be played.
Coaches working with teams at higher levels can never assume the opposition has significant weaknesses that are relatively easy to exploit. deciding on which zone to use it is safer to assume the opposition is well organised and has equally talented personnel which is why I have favoured the use of a "match up" zone.
The match up zone can be described in two ways, "a man to man defence with zone principles" or " a zone defence with man to man principles". There are slight differences in the way each may be played, but for the purposes of this exercise we will describe the "zone defence with man to man principles"
In most cases the match-up zone will look like a 1-2-2 to start with, but after each pass it may look like a 2-1-2 or 1-3-1 or even a straight man to man defence depending on where passes and offensive players go. Usually defensive pressure is applied to the ball handler between the centre-line and the top of the key, but the defensive front line might be retreated to the top of the key or extended to the centre-line.
For the purpose of describing the rules of the match up zone we will show two guards and three forwards, but the positioning of the players will ultimately be determined by the natural talent of each individual. In the match up zone all players must be active and alert to the movement of every player. In fact this might be one of the defence's weaknesses as it is uncommon to have every player on a team with the same high level of commitment and understanding to make it successful. However when all players are active and committed, the players respond well to the challenge and seem to have more "fun" playing defence, when it is more common for players to get their "fun" out of playing offence.
The first instruction to players is, 'when defending the man with the ball do so as if you are playing man to man.' Then the defensive player next to the man defending the ball must locate the next offensive player in his zone and defend him as if it is a man to man defence. The next player may have to move beyond the normal zone area to locate an opponent, especially after the opposition has made cuts through the zone. When a pass is made, the player defending the man with the ball always releases off that man and steps toward the lane, keeping vision on his man and the ball. He keeps defending his man until he releases him to a team mate.
Diagram 1 The guard 2 is "up" applying pressure on the ball. When the guard is "up" the forward 4 on the same side is up. In this example it suggests the offence has lined up in a 1-3-1 offensive structure.
Let's assume 2 passes to 4 and 3 cuts through the lane to the corner. 3 would stay with his man until he reached 5 and then 5 would assume he is defending O3 as if it was man to man X3 would stay in the lane temporarily to discourage a penetrating pass while X2 would drop back to the free throw line.
In diagram 2 O4 passes to O3 in the corner, X5 would defend him and X4 would drop back to the lane toward the baseline. If the pass is made from O3 back out to 04 then X2 would move out to defend him , while X3 holds his position close to the free throw line to prevent a penetrating pass. X3 moves out to defend the point if a pass is made to this position.
In diagram 3 the ball is passed from the point to the wing. X 1 moves to pressure the ball handler. If the pass is relayed to the corner, X4 moves out to pressure him as X1 drops back to the lane to prevent a penetrating drive or pass. In some cases X5 may have been required to move to defend or deny a pass from the corner to the low post. When this happens X1 will continue all the way through to the other side of the lane and be prepared to move out to the wing in case the ball is moved quickly from one side of the court to the other, as in diagram 4. X3 remains close to the lane denying any drive or passes until a pass is made back to the wing.